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Fighting Grain Fires

Date Posted: September 1, 1999

By Robert W. Schoeff

Many years ago, our local fire chief asked for help in fighting a fire at a local grain elevator. He said he couldn’t find any guidelines to help him. I called a meeting of several experienced fire chiefs and industry personnel to share their experiences.

This article is based on a summary of that meeting 10 years ago and information gathered since then. This is critical information to share with your local fire department. Better yet, if you or any of your employees are members of a local volunteer fire department, use this as the basis for a training session.

Before a Fire Happens

1. Firefighters need to become thoroughly acquainted with all commercial grain storage and processing facilities in their fire district, on both a day and night time basis. Supply fire districts with an up-to-date plat map of the facility that shows:

• The location of all buildings, access roads, and gates.

• The location of all utilities, includng gas, electricity, water, and telephone.

• The location of fire hydrants and sprinkler connections.

• The location of grain dryers.

• The location of hazardous chemicals in storage including fertilizer and petroleum products.

Also, make sure the district has up-to-date cross-sectional drawings showing horizontal and vertical measurements of the grain elevator, processing plants, and other buildings. Make sure different floor levels in the elevator headhouse are identified along with exit doors, windows, and escape ladders.

Update these plans at least once a year. Once every six months is preferable.

2. Review procedures for reporting a fire. All fires should be reported promptly.

If an automatic fire alarm system is in place, check periodically to ensure that it will function properly. Check to see if it is installed properly and will give adequate protection. Make sure an alternative communication system in case telephone service is not available. This can happen easily if there is a dust explosion.

3. Review what appropriate steps employees and managers should take before the fire department arrives.

This might be a difficult chore, since every fire is different. On the other hand, certain types of equipment often are involved in fires, such as a slipping conveyor belt or an overheated bearing.

4. Train your local firefighters on the layout of your facility and the obstacles they’ll face in the event of a fire.

Once a Fire Occurs

1. Identify the type of fire and materials involved:

• Electrical – control and junction boxes, exposed wiring, unapproved extension lights, high voltage (220 and 440 volts).

• Structural – Wood, metal-clad wood, all metal or steel, concrete, other materials.

• Equipment – conveying, processing, drying, or packaging.

• Stored materials – corn, oats, wheat, barley, rye, sorghum, soybeans, flax, sunflower, canola, cottonseed, dehydrated alfalfa. Note: oilseeds and dried alfalfa may spontaneously combust.

• Chemicals – fumigants, grain preservatives, drugs, fertilizers such as ammonia nitrate or anhydrous ammonia.

• Other organic materials – milk powder, sugar, spices, etc.

• Processed material – processed flour, corn meal, corn starch, grits, bulgar, breakfast foods, pet foods.

• Byproducts – grain dust and millfeeds such as bran, hulls, and creenings.

2. Where available, follow established guidelines for the type of fire being fought – electrical, hazardous material, etc.

3. For fires involving stored grain and processed grain products, there are 10 areas where fires are most likely to start:

• Receiving pits.

• Conveyors.

• Headhouse, top and bottom.

• Loading areas, including both confined and open systems such as bucket elevators, open belt conveyors, and pneumatic systems.

• Dryers, including whole grain, feed pellets, and starch.

• Storage silos and bins.

• Processing equipment, including grinders and roller mills.

• Packaging.

• Warehouse.

• Transportation equipment.

4. Determine the location and extent of the fire and whether it is on the urface an accessible.

5. If the fire is accessible and controllable, use water through a fogger nozzle. Never hit grain or grain dust with a straight stream. Be equally careful not to point a dry chemical extinguisher directly at a grain dust fire because of the danger of creating a dust cloud. Deep-seated fires caused by spontaneous combustion or a dust explosion are hard to detect and not easily extinguished by using water.

6. If the fire is not readily accessible in a storage silo or bin, consider using an attic probe or a probe with small orifices that can be inserted into the burning area and introduce “wet” water.

7. If a fire is in the upper part of the structure or headhouse, determine if a dry pipe sprinkler system is available for charging. Use that, if available. Keep all personnel at a safe distance from the building, 100 to 200 feet, in case a dust explosion might occur.

8. To minimize smoke and water damage, remove burning material as quickly as possible through outside openings in the storage structure. Do not move burning material through interior conveying systems.

Exercise extreme care in cutting openings that the structural integrity of the building is not compromised nor that a fire is started or an explosion caused. Consult with a structural engineer wherever possible. Have fire department personnel available to wet down the grain or other ingredients so there is no dust cloud that can be fuel for a flash fire.

9. Consult with your insurance company and salvage experts whenever possible to minimize damage to the structure and inventory.

10. Small surface fires resulting from a dust explosion, if accessible, can be extinguished with water and a fogger nozzle. Deep-seated fires in the grain mass can be eliminated best by removing the grain from the storage bin.

Experienced fire chiefs recommend that upon arriving at the fire scene, adopt a defensive mode. Place personnel safety first. Do not risk unnecessary manpower when investigating and fighting a grain fire. Keep personnel out and at a safe distance, especially from wood structures.

Robert W. Schoeff is retired as professor emeritus in the Department of Grain Science and Industry, Kansas State University, Manhattan; 785-539-8891.